A Dusted Review – Solens Arc by Kangding Ray (February 24th, 2014)

In the nearly 15 years since its inception in 1999, Raster-Noton has become a byword (or two) for minimal techno, glitch and experimental electronica. Kangding Ray’s fourth album for the label occasionally borrows from the former, but is otherwise a remarkably warm and straight-ahead electronic album pitched somewhere between dub step and the Chain Reaction stable. It’s miles from albums like Alva Noto’s data-squelching minimalist epics Unitxt and univrs, Emptyset’s harsh brutalism or Ryoji Ikeda’s gristly post-techno. It demonstrates the wide scope of modern European electronica, especially in Germany, where the boundaries of genre and style seem to be crumbling, releasing a myriad possibilities.

As the album’s title suggests, Solens Arc follows a clear progression a trajectory of sorts, coming across as a live show recreated in the studio. Opener “Serendipity March” bears some traces of an earlier Ray (né David Letellier) collaboration with Australian noise/electronic artist Ben Frost, with deep, shuddering bass lines and sombre waves of synth shifting over plodding kicks. It’s swiftly followed by a beat-less 25-second interlude, a leitmotiv pattern that recurs throughout Solens Arc, each lengthy track followed by ambient drones that Brian Eno would approve of. Although none is particularly striking, these segues prevent the variegated tracks that form the album’s core from becoming distractingly eclectic.

If Solens Arc is a representation of Ray’s live shows, then I can only recommend you catch him when he’s next in town. “Evento” blasts relentless groovy minimal techno, falling somewhere between The Field and Porter Ricks, its repeated snare snaps propelling a haze of lush synthesizer patterns and hypnotic muted bass. “Blank Empire” resembles post-dubstep Londoners like Zomby, Actress and the recent Burial EPs. Even more intensely brooding is ‘Amber Decay’, on which Ray lays down pulsating deep grooves amid a storm of crackle and hiss, bringing to mind Raime’s bleak industrial soundscapes. “History of Obscurity’”’s see-sawing synth line feels practically disco, although allied to grimly monotonous beats and drenched in reverberating levels of echo.

By casting his net so wide, Kangding Ray’s diverse craftsmanship occasionally causes Solens Arc to meander aimlessly, the segues failing to cover over the jarring shifts in style. But when Ray hits the nail full square, he produces some of the most lushly-crafted and infectious dubstep/IDM/minimal techno (label it as you prefer) I’ve heard in a good while. As a listening experience, Solens Arc feels uneven, but in a club it must bloody well rock.

A Dusted Review: HD by Atom™ (April 15th, 2013)

On HD, Atom™, a.k.a. Uwe Schmidt, emphatically breaks down the barriers separating disparate forms of electronic music. Pop, techno, glitch and hip-hop all collide in ways both engrossing and impossibly messy.

The clearest influence in this endeavor is his fellow German electronic act Kraftwerk. Like Ralf and Co.’s most memorable songs, opener “Pop HD” is centered around neutrally-delivered soundbite-esque lyrics seemingly lauding (in French) the potential of high-quality (or hard-hitting) pop music: “Pop HD […] / C’est intense/et politique,” all delivered in a Hutter-esque deadpan over minimal, circular beats interjected by fizzy synth glitches. But there’s an edge to Schmidt’s music that is mostly absent from Kraftwerk’s meticulous pop. Atom™ clearly views pop music as wholly relevant and useful music, but only if it learns to challenge the straightjacket it is being hemmed into by corporate and market forces. This is even more evident in the tension between the more overtly catchy elements of his music and those aforementioned glitches and noises that Schmidt uses to disturb his music’s flow. At the end of “Pop HD,” the track briefly stops altogether, like one of those cliffhangers house DJs like to use in clubs, only for the voice to kick in at full force, this time drenched in saturation, its robotic disconnection suddenly transformed into an aggressive rush.

“Pop HD” lays the foundations for the thought-processes on HD, but these are expanded on most effectively on later tracks. “Empty” sounds like a glitchier take on The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette” or “T.V.O.D,” with rather to-the-point lyrics excoriating music’s commodification via television: “Empty / MTV / Empty,” etc. It’s not very subtle, but it’s hard not to smile at Schmidt’s determination, especially since this is the kind of harsh, minimalist synth-pop that initially flourished in the late-1970s before making way for the lusher excesses of the new romantics movement. “Stop (Imperialist Pop)” is perhaps Schmidt’s boldest statement on HD, its vocoder’d vocal invectives brimming with anger as the German takes broadsides at the major record labels and highly-manufactured stars like Justin Timberlake (“Give us a fucking break”) over shuffling beats and jittery electronic textures. “Stop (Imperialist Pop)” is neatly followed by a brash electro cover of The Who’s “My Generation,” just to ram the point home. Somehow, against expectations, Pete Townshend’s defiant lyrics take on fresh momentum when delivered in a mechanical voice and skittish drum machine clusters. And of course, Atom™’s music is so artificial-sounding, a line like “Hope I die before I get old” takes on new meaning. Do androids dream of making pop records?

In addition to these rants against consumerist pop, Schmidt also displays quite a bit of humor. “I love U” features Jamie Lidell in a cool guest appearance singing hilarious lines like “I love you / Like I love my drum machine,” whilst the aforementioned lyrics on “Stop (Imperialist Pop)” will have even the most stern-faced glitch fans smiling into their Ableton software. The tracks do get a bit samey, with only “I love U” and “Riding the Void” displaying true dance rhythms, whilst some of the more abstract pieces tend to grate, but there’s a humanity underneath the omnipresent synth noises and drones that belies Schmidt’s apparent austerity. HD is a weird and funny take on synth-pop conventions, and perhaps signposts new directions for the genre.

A Liminal Review: univrs by Alva Noto (October 17th, 2011)

Raster-Noton continues to explore the outer limits of electronic music on this latest offering by the label’s co-owner, Carsten Nicolai, aka Alva Noto. In 2008, his unitxt album turned heads with its radical juxtaposition of heavily processed percussive techno with excoriating white noise, as he took computer data files, such as Excel, Word or Powerpoint documents and converted them into sound. The results were often astonishing, abrasive and sonically extreme.

univrs follows on from the concept behind untixt, expanding the scope to explore the association of rhythmic patterns and melodic units with the universality of language. The Internet and the concordant proliferation of digital information has had a notable effect on how individuals communicate, as associations, friendships, even romances, are conducted without people having to meet; whilst the written word has (d)evolved with the multiplication of technological terms and text speak. This is most overtly explored on ‘uni acronym’, on which frequent Alva Noto collaborator Anne-James Chaton recites 208 three-letter acronyms (“TGV”, “BBC”, “IBM”, etc) in a crisp deadpan, his every enunciation punctuated by Nicolai’s motorik techno beats and shuffling synth loops. Each acronym is both meaningless and loaded with associated thoughts, creating an indistinct narrative simply by virtue of the letters’ associations in the head of the listener.

Musically, like its predecessor, univrs is a dense and slightly forbidding listen, dominated by sharp high frequencies and aggressive rhythmic patterns. As the album evolves, it becomes a hard-hitting wall of highly-processed electronic noise that stretches on and on for 14 tracks and over an hour. It certainly, like a lot of Raster-Noton albums, takes some getting used to. But where unitxt’s use of pure computerised data rendered it pretty much impossible to relate to on anything but a purely conceptual level (“Cool idea…”), there is a lot more going on in the swirling explorations contained on univrs.

Perhaps a key factor is that all 14 tracks were developed from live recordings, which would account for the greater use of fast-paced beats and the dense, homogeneous sound of the album. Tracks like ‘uni c’, ‘uni dia’ and ‘uni deform’ are propelled by thumping rhythm patterns and frenetic melodies that wouldn’t seem too out of place on a mainstream techno release. On ‘uni rec’ and the hefty ‘uni iso’, Nicolai explores subtle temporal and textural shifts, layering glimmers of clear ambient drones over off-kilter pulsations before breaking up the uneasy calm with rampaging buzz-saw effects and uneasy high-frequency keens. Nicolai’s mastery of electronic textures, and the way in which he carves exquisitely-produced pieces out of such a harsh swirl of noises, is second to none.

It can be easy to only approach Alva Noto’s work as a series of intellectual works, or as coldly impressive sonic exercises, but on univrs at least, his abrasive form of abstract techno feels almost perfectly tailored for the dancefloor. Ok, perhaps not in a mainstream club, but still… (minimal techno nights are multiplying in cities like London and Berlin, aftre all). Music is a form of language, after all, a means to bring people together in universal appreciation of sound, and the hard-hitting beats and elastic synth and sequencer wizardry on display here would barely sound out of place sailing out of a DJ’s booth in a club. A special edition of the album will come with a bonus DVD of live footage and a video, as well as a detailed booklet; whilst Nicolai has put on performances and installations around the album’s themes. All of this interactivity enhances the universality of the album’s ambition.

If the music of Alva Noto is centred on the recreation of digital data into musical form, then univrs feels like the moment that data starts interacting with the unpredictability of the human heart and mind. univrs is harsh, powerful and cold, but also intensely rhythmic and elating. Above all, even when ranked alongside other albums on the Raster-Noton roster, it stands out as being boldly adventurous and unique.